How to tell the story of the complex figure that was George Michael?
The singer, who by 1988 had become the biggest-selling artist in the world thanks to his debut solo album Faith and earlier huge success with Wham!, will always be remembered for his music. He was a songwriter with a gift for creating an earworm and a remarkable, soulful voice, plus good looks and wit; a perfect pop star package that brought him adulation from millions around the world.
But for a long time, the real George Michael was hiding behind a sex-god image. And in his final years, stories of run-ins with the law, health problems and drug use threatened to overshadow his talent. Despite his eventual candidness about his sexuality and the fact he enjoyed casual sex – after years in the closet before his very public outing – it still provided a rich source for salacious headlines.
Michael’s death at the age of 53 at Christmas in 2016 – as thousands listened to his younger self singing of a broken heart among the Slade and Mariah Carey on festive playlists – stunned the world, and shrines of flowers, candles and tributes to the singer soon built outside his homes.
Along with the tributes and revisits to his back catalogue also came the stories of George Michael the philanthropist, a man who is said to have quietly donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to charities, secretly funded a woman’s IVF treatment after seeing her on TV, and volunteered anonymously at a homeless shelter.
There were many sides to the star and his story is currently being told in a new biography as well as a re-released uncut documentary, which is Michael’s story in his own words.
Leaving behind any song-based puns, tales of tragedy or headline-grabbing misdemeanours, music biographer James Gavin simply chose George Michael: A Life for the title of his thorough book. He says he set out to encompass everything, positive and negative, after talking to almost 250 people who knew or encountered the singer through different periods of his life.
“George, for all of the sadness in his life, was not perceived as that, is not perceived as that,” he says. “People don’t look upon him as a tragic figure. Yes, he died at the age of 53. It shouldn’t have happened. It happened. And yet I think that George Michael, his name and his music instantly make people happy.”
Michael’s music made millions happy, and still does – whether you discovered him dancing to the carefree pop of Wham!, swooned over Faith, embraced change with Freedom! 90, or cheered him on as he unapologetically addressed the moment that led to his outing – being arrested for engaging in a “lewd” act in a public toilet following an undercover police sting in LA in 1998 – with Outside, a song about having sex outdoors; Michael dressed as a police officer in the video, dancing and swinging a truncheon next to a row of disco-ball decorated urinals.
As Gavin puts it, he was a musician who had a “flair for taking confused, conflicted lives of struggle and high achievement and turning that into beautiful and oftentimes sad music”.
The project Michael was working on before he died
Shortly before his death, Michael told broadcaster Kirsty Young that he hoped a period of downtime from music would “result in something spectacular” and she later wrote of their interview that she felt he “had a lot of hope that good things were ahead”. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. While he featured on a few singles in his final years, he had not released an album of new material since his fifth record Patience in 2004.
However, he had been working on a project before he died – the documentary Freedom, which was re-released in cinemas in June and featured elements of his discussion with Young. Directed by Michael himself alongside his long-time friend David Austin, as well as shining a light on his music it is also a deeply personal and moving account of the star’s struggles with his sexuality, fame and industry bosses, as well as his grief following the deaths of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who had AIDS, and his mother from cancer. However, it does not really touch on the more turbulent period of his final years.
Michael speaks of being a teenager and his “desperate ambition to be famous and to be loved and respected”, in the film, but then goes on to discuss his struggles with the spotlight: “I’m aware of the need for a persona, and my actual persona I’m not really prepared to give.”
Gavin’s book also details these struggles, tracing the star’s transformation from the shy and awkward Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou into the superstar he became. It also delves into Michael’s self-destructive nature.
‘George got a lot less joy out of being George Michael than we got out of George Michael’
He says he wanted to tell Michael’s story honestly. “I’m fascinated by both the shiny, bright, triumphant moments of lives and the really down moments of lives. And I think that artists like George – as well as all of us, but especially artists of that depth – are defined by everything that happened to them.”
Michael was “tortured” throughout a lot of his life, Gavin says. “I came to discover, George had gotten a lot less joy out of being George Michael than we had gotten out of George being George Michael. And that is the case of so many superstar lives.”
The star also felt he was misperceived, he says. “Unfortunately, the circumstances of George’s life were such that he handed the press scandal on a silver platter and it was easy for people to perceive him, in my opinion, unkindly, as a spoilt superstar who had gone off the tracks and who had destroyed all of his enormous privilege and accomplishment.
“And that is not untrue. But what I tried to convey… is the fact that he was a human being underneath all of that. He was a guy in trouble who struggled with self-hatred at a high degree. The first half of George Michael’s life was about building and creating the George Michael character. The second half was all about tearing that down.”
George Michael: A Life, by music biographer James Gavin, is available now. The documentary George Michael Freedom Uncut is also out now